[SWP: Behind the Book] Remembering the Small Stuff--a Challenge of Writing Memoir

Yesterday a fellow Peace Corps alum who had just started reading my memoir asked, “How did you remember so many details from the Peace Corps?”

I laughed because I needed lots of help.

We all know that details make our writing more vivid, but what do you do when you just can’t recall what color that car was or why you decided to go to grad school? Here were some things that helped stir my memory when I was writing Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, published by She Writes Press in March:

1. A few years ago, during a summer visit to my best friend from college, I dug through the junk in her basement to find the box of letters I had written from my two and a half years in a Botswana village. At home, I dug out my old journals and made them my bedtime reading for months. It was shocking how many things I had totally forgotten, from the boyfriend dilemmas that had seem so important at the time to that trip to Zambia I almost took. Every once in a while there would be a nugget that was perfect for the book, like the Botswana proverb that became the first chapter title: “A person is a person because of other people.”

2. Old photos were also helpful. An out-of-focus picture of me with a bucket of water on my head brought back the feeling of weight on my neck and the village girls who giggled when some of the water sloshed onto me. Coming back to the United States and transitioning to a less simple lifestyle was difficult, but pictures from those years helped me remember the joy of having a new baby—and all the contraptions people gave us to put her in.

3. An important turning point in my story occurs when I realize at forty-nine that I’m not living as simply as I’d like. I’d lost track of some of my youthful values and wanted to reclaim them. It was a confusing time. Within six weeks, I quit a job I’d had for eleven years, decided to go back to Africa for my fiftieth birthday, and dedicated myself to fighting climate change. In my first draft, these decisions seemed to come out of the blue, and the connection between them was confusing. To make the narrative more coherent, I went back through my electronic calendar and mapped out exactly what happened when. Getting the chronology right, not surprisingly, helped the story make sense.

4. Google also came in handy. Renewable starts with my first arrest for climate change activism, which happened to be with a bunch of famous people in front of the White House. So when I wanted to remember how embarrassed I felt when I realized I was chewing a chocolate chip Cliff bar in every photo of Daryl Hannah’s arrest, it wasn’t hard to bring up the image. (I'm the one in the purple coat.) The Internet was also handy for fact checking things I remembered, but not always accurately.

5. Asking friends to read parts of my draft helped me identify where my memory was fuzzy. For example, I fondly remembered watching the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper cross the night sky in Botswana, until a South African friend told me gently that you can’t see the Big Dipper from the Southern Hemisphere. I was sure he was wrong, but a Google search confirmed that it was actually Orion I’d been watching. As he pointed out, if I got that fact wrong, why should people believe me when I talk about the effects of climate change in Africa?

Of course, there are still going to be details of my own life that were never recorded, and a memoirist just has to do her best. I still recall the advice a writing teacher gave a class I was in twenty-two years ago: “If you are describing your first sexual experience in the back of a Chevy, and you can’t remember if the car was blue or green, just call it blue and focus on the emotional truth of the story.” In memoir, the details are there to bring the emotional truth to life, which is, in the end, is why we love to read each other's stories.

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Comment by Michelle Cox on May 4, 2015 at 7:49am

Your book sounds very interesting!  Thanks for the tips on remembering details.  It's amazing what comes back to you when you just sit down and start to write.  For everyday life, I have to write everything down...I have lists everywhere.  Occasionally, I've misplaced them, and then it's true panic!  

Comment by Pamela Olson on May 4, 2015 at 4:32am

I always appreciate a link to people's books for ease of learning more, so here's a link to Renewable :)

www.amazon.com/Renewable-Womans-Search-Simplicity-Faithfulness/dp/1...

Comment by Karen Szklany Gault on May 2, 2015 at 6:54am

Thank you for this post. Enjoyed reading all of the follow-up comments from readers, too. :0)

Comment by Leslie Johansen Nack on April 30, 2015 at 4:26pm

I had a friend ask me how I remembered so many details of a story I posted on my blog because it happened more than 40 years ago. But my whole memoir is about that same time - 40 years ago. I used many of the same techniques you did, consulting journals, pictures, log books, and even a friend's journal. I also called my sisters and mother and asked them to "tell me the story of such and such," and then they would tell it and some of our memories overlapped and some of it didn't. It's amazing what one remembers in a time of trauma. It's almost like we grew up in different families during some of the incidents that happened. I really think writing my emotional truth at the time is more important than whether the car is blue or green. 

Comment by Sharon Scott MaHarry on April 30, 2015 at 3:24pm

In writing my memoir I struggled with certain details because my mother lost all of our family albums--which is a story in itself. I've found that it helps to play music from the era, imagine the tactile details of our clothing, the old sofa worn shiny over the years, the sheen of paste wax on our oak floors. As Dick Clark once said, "Music is the soundtrack of our lives." Try it.

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on April 30, 2015 at 2:25pm

! In fact that teacher's quote is something I use to explain different kinds of writing. If I were writing a news story about an accident, the color of the car would be very important. In memoir, maybe not so much.>>

Brilliant!

Comment by Judy Reeves on April 30, 2015 at 2:19pm

Thanks for the post, Eileen. These are important reminders for all of us. I use some of the same techniques, even in writing fiction. Using google maps w/images to be able to describe landscape someplace I've never been, old photographs of the era my novel is set to get details of clothes and hairstyles right, even when cars had fins, what music was being played when, and important historical events that a writer can weave into her story--all this makes the story all the more authentic.

Comment by Eileen Flanagan on April 30, 2015 at 2:08pm

Thanks, all! Kelly, you can tell you're a journalist! In fact that teacher's quote is something I use to explain different kinds of writing. If I were writing a news story about an accident, the color of the car would be very important. In memoir, maybe not so much. But as a Quaker, because integrity is a central value, I sometimes add qualifiers when I'm not sure, even though I think the writing might be stronger without them. Terri, never too late for memoir, including Peace Corps ones! Thanks for the other comments, too. If other memoirists want to add their tips, please go ahead!

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on April 30, 2015 at 1:44pm

Great post!  As a journalist, I totally agree with your South African friend:  If one obvious detail is wrong, what other information might the storyteller be playing fast and loose with?  The way I'd handle the color of the Chevy is something like this:  "The Chevy was green.  It could have been blue.  My attention was elsewhere."

Your book looks great, Eileen!  Important story!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
Comment by Rita Gabis on April 30, 2015 at 1:24pm

I'm just doing the last read of my memoir before it goes to press and I love the way you talk about calling up memory and using tools to help…photographs are a wonderful resource (the one you included is great).  I've found the whole issue of memory to be complex and am glad that, like you, friends have been there to help me revisit narratives of my past and also, that I too have been an avid journal writer for many years of my life.  I've found that "chronology" has at least two sides: one is sequential, but one is emotional.  I chose not to make my book completely linear time-wise.  I really look forward to reading your book about the amazing changes you embarked upon as soon as my desk is cleared!  Best, Rita

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